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The Magic of Magic and Bird

May Contain Spoilers

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The saying in boxing is that "styles make fights." It means that two elegant matadors like Muhammad Ali, or two rampaging bulls like Joe Frazier, wouldn't have contested the classics fought by one Muhammad Ali and one Joe Frazier. The saying is true, and its truth extends beyond boxing to all sporting rivalries.

And, just as "fights" is not limited to boxing matches, "style" is not limited to physical methods of competition. "Style" includes styles of speaking, styles of thinking, styles of living. And, of course, "style" also includes skin color.

 

"Magic & Bird" is available from Netflix, Amazon Instant and iTunes.

 

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At the time it most needed it, the NBA hosted a rivalry between two men who were stylistically so opposed but so similar in ability that they seemed like the creations of a hack screenwriter. Both were 6'9". Both were brilliant. One shone on the West Coast and the other on the East. One was black and the other white. One was extroverted even by the standards of Hollywood, which welcomed him; the other seemed introverted even by the standards of French Lick, Indiana, the "one stoplight town" where he grew up. Together, they ignited their sport.

"One of my pet peeves is when people say, 'Oh, Michael Jordan saved the NBA,'" says the sportscaster Bryant Gumble in Ezra Edelman's 2010 documentary "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals". "Bullshit!" he adds, repeating the expletive for emphasis. "Magic and Larry saved the NBA."

Many sporting rivalries occur between two players who dislike each other, and begin because of a violent clash, a disputed result or an outburst amplified in the media. These rivalries are generally perpetuated by the athletes involved, whom society allows an ugly petulance it expects the rest of us to leave in childhood.

A better class of rivalry occurs between two players from competing teams who happen to be simultaneously noteworthy. These rivalries are generally perpetuated by the press, who have to report something besides score lines and statistics.

But the great rivalries are different. They occur between two exceptional players who, ironically, do not need anyone else to push them to compete and force them to excel. The players involved come to resent not just their opponent but the rivalry itself, which alters them, overwhelms them and intrudes on their sense of self. These rivalries seem ordained by fate and perpetuated by some universal law of inevitability. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had that kind of rivalry.

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It began in the final of the 1979 NCAA Championship, when Bird's Indiana State met Johnson's Michigan State in the most watched game in college basketball history. Indiana lacked major talent besides Bird and so Michigan deployed two players to flank him wherever he went, like guards from a maximum security prison transporting a serial killer. Johnson was not similarly encumbered, and Michigan took the title. Round 1 went to Magic.

The next year, in his first season in the NBA, Johnson played superbly. But Bird was better, and was named Rookie of Year. Round 2 went to Larry. Bird's victory upset Johnson, who went out to play against Philadelphia in the sixth game of the 1980 NBA finals desperate to prove himself the better player. What followed is a legend that scarcely needs repeating: after an injury to Lakers linchpin Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, a point guard, started at center. In a spectacular display of all-court artistry, he played in all five positions and won the LA Lakers the NBA title. Bird, whose Boston Celtics had lost in the conference finals, had to watch on TV. Round 3 went to Magic. And so it went on.

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It's still going on. "They talk about it every day, somewhere," says Bird in the opening moments of Edelman's movie. "If I go to a foreign country, it's 'Magic! Magic! Where's Magic?' It's the same everywhere." Bird seems sullen and hopeless, as if he is suddenly realizing that the documentary is only going to strengthen the association and worsen the situation. He looks as if he'd welcome an intrusive enquiry about his sex life just to change the subject.

Johnson, as ever, is more upbeat: "You know you got this tight bond with this cat, and you don't have to see him for a year or two, but you always going to be linked to him."

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That "you" is interesting: it's a conversational tic, but it's also a polite attempt to involve us in a situation we can never share. Johnson doesn't mean "you". He means "I." "You" suggests that you or I could ever know what it is like to be indisputably one of the best basketball players of all time and yet always prevented from being indisputably the best basketball player of your time by the same one man.

Edelman understands this. Where films like "Magic & Bird" often fail is that they attempt to show us something we can never see. This film knows that, no matter how many analysts it enlists, how many confidants and commentators it includes to explain and contextualize its subject, those contributors will, like us, always be outsiders. Only Magic and Bird can ever understand what it means to be Magic and Bird.

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Films like this one also often fail because their directors are simply so spoiled with good footage that the films become just extended highlight reels. Edelman avoids this: he knows that, used well, archive game footage can illustrate his story better than any talking head interview, even when the head that is talking belongs to Magic Johnson or Larry Bird.

The best footage in the film comes from 1978, before Bird and Johnson made it to the NBA and before they even made it to the NCAA Championship game. The infamous adversaries played with each other before they played against each other, when they were both chosen for Team USA. When they weren't on court, says Johnson, the US lead in a game would hover around 10 or 15 points. When the coach brought Bird and Johnson off the bench, the lead would zoom up to 25 or 30. When he called them back to it, the lead would sink back to 10.

In one scintillating improvised attack, we see Johnson flick the ball to Bird without looking. Bird collects it and glides like a ghost through two opponents before passing it back to Johnson without even glancing in his direction. The ball reappears in Johnson's hand, and he eases it into the basket. This all seems to be one motion, the product of one thought, as if the two players were somehow the same player standing in two places at once.

The others on court are irrelevant: Johnson and Bird are light years beyond them. The clip encapsulates what the rest of the film reinforces: athletes as elite as Johnson and Bird have an innate understanding of each other and occupy a place inaccessible to onlookers.

That unique kind of familiarity can breed a unique kind of contempt. Each man was infected with an unshakable obsession with the other. Bird would search the newspapers for Johnson's statistics after every Lakers game and measure himself against them. If he finished training for the day and hadn't made 500 shots, he would torture himself with thoughts that Johnson was sure to have reached that mark.

And when he beat Johnson, it was bliss. "I hope it hurt him. I hoped it killed him," says Bird of Boston's victory over LA in 1984 NBA finals. "He made some bad plays... and nobody was happier than me. [It's] not only winning the game [that] makes you feel good. It's knowing the other guy is suffering."

This is not unnecessary unpleasantness. It is simply an honest description of what it means to make your living by being one of the most competitive men in the world.

But, just as a connection like that between Bird and Johnson can initially breed a unique kind of contempt, it can eventually breed a unique kind of affection. John McEnroe spent his early tennis career wishing his only equal, Bjorn Borg, would just disappear. But when Borg did disappear, when he retired abruptly at 26, McEnroe was disconsolate. At times, he wanted to retire too: he saw little point in playing if Borg was not around to play against. So it was with Bird and Johnson.

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After the press conference at which Johnson announced his retirement because he had contracted HIV, Magic was happy and hopeful. But Bird was engulfed by depression. He felt as bad, he says, as he did when his father died. He played on for another season, "but it wasn't the same." He stopped checking the newspapers for stats. He stopped trying as hard. There was no need to better himself, now that there was no need to better Magic Johnson.

When people think you're about to get AIDS and die, says Johnson, your friends thin out pretty quickly. It is only then, he has learned, that you truly see who cares for you. When Johnson caught HIV, Bird called him to tell him that he cared, and that he cared very much. Johnson weeps as he tells this story. That phone call was, he says, just "the greatest moment."

"Magic & Bird" is a straightforward, 90-minute HBO TV movie. As an evocation of a culturally significant sporting clash, it cannot match up to "When We Were Kings" and, as a basketball documentary, it is hardly "Hoop Dreams." But, in those moments when it reveals how a great rivalry can enrich a man as much as a great romance, it becomes a wonderful film.

There is, however, another reason it is so affecting: it satisfies an urge felt by all of us who are ordinary.

Throughout Ron Shelton's "Cobb," Al Stump, the sportswriter played by Robert Wuhl, is abused by Ty Cobb, the greatest of great baseball players, played by Tommy Lee Jones. In one scene, Stump is asked why he spends so much time with Cobb, who is an appalling person, a vicious, violent, drunken criminal. Stump looks as if the answer should be obvious--and then, when he realises it isn't, he says simply, "He knows what it is to be great."

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson know what it is to be great--and it is that, as much as its intelligent retelling of their rivalry, that makes Edelman's film so appealing. "Magic & Bird" does not let us understand what it is to be great. But it lets us be around greatness. And that is always irresistible.

Scott Jordan Harris is a British film critic and sportswriter. He is editor of the books World Film Locations: New York and World Film Locations: New Orleans. He is on Twitter as @ScottFilmCritic. https://twitter.com/#!/ScottFilmCritic

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